The Byronic Hero and Why Every Good Romance Novel Needs Him
BY JENNI COWBURN
Think about your favorite romantic novel and the chances are it contains a strong male protagonist. If this protagonist is aloof, independent, emotionally unavailable, deeply flawed, secretive, cunning yet somehow still loving and attractive, then the chances are he is a Byronic Hero and your favorite romance novel just wouldn’t be the same without him. He probably has several ladies swooning at his feet and maybe has a history of picking the wrong partner or is currently courting a superficial slip of a girl who can’t possibly match up to his towering intellect. He may even be locked in an unhappy relationship, unable to stay yet unwilling to leave – until, that is, he meets his intellectual and emotional soul mate, falls head over heels in love with her, overcomes any obligatory obstacles and then dashes off into the sunset with his number one lady at his side (or, as with Heathcliff and Cathy, meets a tragic end).
Heathcliff, Mr Rochester, Mr Darcy, Rhett Butler – even Edward Cullen in the popular Twilight novels – all are typical Byronic Heroes and many are characters in some of the greatest, most canonical romantic novels of all times. So how can the aspiring romantic novelist inject a little extra something into his or her male protagonist, making him an adversary (or advocate) worthy of the most Byronic of Heroes? This article will outline the traits associated with this type of romantic hero with a view to explaining exactly why all good romance novels need such a complex character.
What Makes the Byronic Hero so Special?
At the risk of endorsing a stereotype, women often love a bad boy – and our Byronic Hero is THE baddest boy of the lot. Reckless, cunning, ruthless, cold – he is indeed all these things and his actions and dialogue should send our female protagonist running into the loving and dependable arms of a Mr Collins or Edgar Linton type character– but it seldom does. The truth is, our Byronic Hero is also deeply loving and lovable, despite his obvious flaws. He might be bad tempered, petulant, even cruel at times – but scratch the surface and the depths of his character are exposed as deep welts of emotions and it soon becomes apparent to the reader that he, quite simply, needs our female heroine in order to survive.
Our hero may have a history of self destructive behaviour encompassing drink, gambling, promiscuity or even drugs – but despite his compulsive nature and destructive tendencies, love will cure him, save him and make him an overall more balanced person. Needless to say, our female heroine will be the one to make everything better, arranging professional help to combat his demons or simply offering him the support and loyalty so lacking in his life prior to meeting his soul mate. To put it simply, our Byronic Hero is special because he is vulnerable. Heathcliff literally couldn’t live without his soul mate Cathy, Mr Rochester was rescued by Jane, Mr Darcy became a far less selfish man under Elizabeth’s gentle influence and impetuous selfish Rhett waited patiently for ten years in the hopes his true love would return his affections. So it is clear to see that the Byronic Hero is invariably complex and, if characterizsed well, makes a fantastically addictive addition to any romance novel.
Elements of the Byronic Hero
So, all that remains is to try and work out how best to create the perfect Byronic Hero as counterpart to a carefully crafted romantic heroine. Well, we have already established that our hero is aloof and emotionally distant but he is also defined by his ability to exist just outside of societal norms. Whether this is facilitated through cunning and intellect (as in the case of Heathcliff) or wealth and secrecy (as with Mr Rochester), a true Byronic hero will maintain an air of ‘otherness’ – that is, he will be separated in some way from the standards held by the ‘mainstream’ characters around him. Your Byronic hero might have a slightly murky past he wants to keep hidden – perhaps he spent time in prison for a crime he didn’t commit? Maybe he is betrothed to a woman of wealth at the insistence of his family yet despises the very concept? Whatever his past, the romantic novelist must ensure that his or her Byronic hero is furnished with hope in the form of his soul mate and that, through her, he will never feel like an outsider again.
Jenni Cowburn is a former teacher and youth worker who decided to take a career break to focus on bringing her family up, she decided to turn her talents to writing and now spends her time penning articles on the subjects she knows most about – and dreaming one day of bagging a Byronic Hero.
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